This time last year we celebrated with Zaha Hadid as she received a long-awaited Stirling Prize for the MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Art in Rome, seemingly the only architectural gong missing from her now overflowing awards cabinet.
Few architecture firms are able to boast two Stirling Prizes (Foster + Partners, Wilkinson Eyre and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) however Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) can now add their name to this elite class of design excellence after this Saturday receiving a second title for the exquisite Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton - the first school building ever to win the Stirling Prize.
Despite her obvious elation at the awards twelve months ago Hadid was absent from Saturday’s official ceremony, instead sending her right hand man - and WAN judge - Patrik Schumacher to receive the award.
After thanking the RIBA and judges, Schumacher gushed: “It’s a wonderful feeling to come back for a second time. This one is particularly meaningful I think, because the beauty of the building was not only recognised by the jury but by the people that are living and breathing in the space.”
The response from the crowded ceremony hall at the Magna Centre, Rotherham was supportive if a little quieter than last year’s roaring accolade, potentially from the surprise that anything other than the Velodrome could steal the title. Since the announcement of the 2011 Stirling Prize shortlist in Juy, the bookie’s favourite has always been Hopkins’ sleek, dipped cedar wood Velodrome, with the practice picking up the Stirling Prize People’s Choice Award on Friday with 63% of the votes.
Although the Evelyn Grace Academy was a somewhat unexpected winner, none can fault the flawless design work from ZHA which has turned this restricted 1.4 hectare site in one of London’s most disadvantaged districts into a flourishing sports academy with world class architecture.
The Academy is run by ARK - an organisation which looks to close the achievement gap between children from affluent and more disadvantaged backgrounds - and has been closely supported by the local community, without a single objection to ZHA’s design from the building’s neighbours.
Demonstrating a resourceful approach to the difficult site the practice managed to insert a multi-use Astroturf sports pitch into the Academy’s grounds, enabling the institution to fully engage with its status as a sports academy. A 100m running track has also been introduced to the exterior space, slicing the main building volume into two sections connected by a bridge that arches over the vivid five-lane track.
The judges may have made an educated decision in selecting the Evelyn Grace Academy as this year’s title-holder, but the backlash has already begun against ZHA’s second consecutive win. Yesterday, UK architecture news source Building Design published a spiky editorial under the title Hadid’s Stirling Prize win ‘is a nasty irony’, quoting London architect Jonathan Ellis Miller as saying: “The irony is that within a couples of miles of the Magna Centre there are schools that lost their BSF funding through [education secretary] Michael Gove, and here we are rewarding the highest prize to an over-priced school. It’s a nasty irony and I think it sends a message of crass stupidity and total insensitivity.”
It is true that many schools lost out in the dissolution of the Building Schools for the Future programme, with scores of education institutions unable to afford basic regeneration projects, however this does not detract from the superb handling of space and design excellence displayed by ZHA at the Evelyn Grace Academy.
Journalists and PR reps can buff any news story to the required result however for the real honest truth one must go direct to the buildings’ users - in this case the Academy’s pupils - one of which told the Stirling Prize jury: “It doesn’t make you depressed in the mornings like the temporary one used to. In fact it’s exciting and we’re proud of it.” It may not be the people's favourite but it's a well deserved win for ZHA.